San Francisco's De Young Museum is a modernist copper-and-glass statement that challenges the eye and mind to think beyond the quotidian. The same can be said for the funky car and its oddball trailer parked just across the street in the heart of Golden Gate Park. If you thought the all-electric Nissan Leaf was a step into the future, Phil Sadow would like you to think again.
"What you're looking at is a propane-powered Capstone turbine engine that spins at 100,000 rpm, but has only one moving part and can help electric vehicle owners get around the lack of quick-charging stations," Sadow says, launching into a flurry of scientific jargon that is the Bay Area engineer's natural language. "It can provide up to 30 kilowatts to supplement the Leaf's own battery pack when you're …"
Hang on. Let's press rewind.
When Nissan unveiled its Leaf EV last year, the wedge-like machine lifted the spirits of any motorist disgruntled by the Who Killed The Electric Car? era. None more so than Sadow, who grew up criss-crossing the country thanks to his father's job with the electric golf cart giant, E-Z-Go.
"You can say I got bit by the EV bug early, around the age of 7," Sadow says.
Fast forward a few decades, and that kid is now an electrical engineering whiz who has become consumed with making this incarnation of the electric car live.
"My goal is to make the EV a success, because it's the only thing that's going to save us," he says. "Our culture is based on cars, so that's not going away. But when petroleum becomes scarce, our economy is going to tank given our dependency on foreign oil. I just hope what we're doing isn't too little too late."
Sadow is part of a growing group of savvy enthusiasts who are eager to improve upon whatever alternative-fuel vehicles auto manufacturers can produce. In many ways, this brainy group of renegades are not unlike the garage-based computer geeks who, in the early days of the PC, hacked around in an effort to find more efficient ways for the machines to run.
Hacker, however, is a term that make Sadow wrinkle his nose. "We are making professionally engineered products," he says. "We're not hacking things together."
The battle within
Although Sadow himself drives a heavily modified Prius -- powered by a 6.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack and monitoring system of his own devising -- he knew that Leaf owners would benefit most from his brainstorms. His first revelation had to do with the Japanese EV's 120-volt power cord, which can re-charge the Leaf in around 20 hours, "which is just far too long to be practical."
Teaming up with fellow EV enthusiast Mark Dutko, EVSE Upgrade was born. The online company sells re-engineered Leaf power cords for $240, which can be plugged into 240-volt connections -- what most homes have for a washer/dryer or hot tub -- thereby reducing re-charge times to around seven hours. Another $25 buys a Quick-220, a forked adapter that allows the Leaf to charge off two separate 110-volt outlets.
Dutko won't release sales figures, but he says EVSE Upgrade has put plugs into the hands of around 15 percent of the nation's 7,000 Leaf owners. Nissan has not endorsed Sadow's invention, something he finds vexing.
"It's certainly easy for people to be scared," he says, referencing the fires some Chevy Volt owners confronted as a result of that plug-in hybrid's power cord issues. "But I think overall there's too much misinformation out there."
Sadow says he has heard no reports of mishaps from his customers. That's given him the impetus to try and further upgrade the Leaf. Next up is a $150 tweak to the car's climate controls. In its as-delivered state, the Leaf's heater -- a significant power drain, since it doesn't have an internal combustion engine generating spare heat -- cannot be shut off with the press of a button, much the way in a conventional car the power-sucking AC can be shut down with one touch.
"With what we're developing, the Leaf owner can very simply shut off the heating unit," says Sadow. "What we find is that with most EV owners, an obsession develops around mileage. People want to go as far as they can off a charge, and don't want anything to get in the way of that quest."
Sadow proudly announces that he hasn't put gas in his Prius since last March.